As long as there have been people, there has been demand for eyeglasses to help those with poor vision see clearly. As a result, glasses have been around for centuries in one form or another. Paintings of Saint Jerome from the 1540s display the glasses he used to read the texts he studied and antique spectacles from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, like “Marvin’s Margins,” in museums and private collections show what eyeglasses look like throughout history.
Much of this early eyewear had various shortcomings and as a result the designs fell out of favor. Some vintage glasses frames were unable to correct vision problems or treat astigmatism. Many used heavy iron frames that were uncomfortable to wear. Glasses did not stay in place particularly well, such as the straight temple glasses in the 1800s sliding off the wearers’ face if they engaged in any physical activity.
Beyond that, glasses that would reliably last through daily use for several years were often prohibitively expensive for the average person since spectacles were made by hand with the rims bent into shape and the lenses grinded individually to create each pair.
This began to change by the end of the 1800s, but it was the early 1900s where innovations in glasses manufacturing would define vintage glasses styles and modern designs for the next century and beyond.
New technologies and materials made it possible to produce glasses that were more comfortable and functional. New needs also played a part in the design of glasses as people suddenly needed to wear their glasses while driving, and an increase in sporting pursuits like bicycle riding, general exercise, and organized sports for both adults and children required glasses that could stay on the wearer’s face.
Underlying all these innovations was an emerging desire to appeal to current fashions and reflect on social standing. For the first time, glasses were designed to be an accessory, not just improve vision.
These innovations of the early 1900s left us with a wide range of iconic vintage glasses from this time period. If you are looking to embody an early 20th century style, are seeking more history on a pair of
antique glasses that you own, or want to know more about fashions of the time period, this guide provides information on all of the iconic types of antique glasses from the 1900s and how those unique innovations led to lasting changes in the eyewear industry.
Gold Wire Rim Glasses
Gold frame spectacles were by far the most common glasses type at the beginning of the 1900s. This carried over from the previous century where gold was the dominant material for making glasses due to its many benefits.
Gold is highly malleable and it can be easily shaped into rims of the desired shape. Depending on the way the glasses were made, gold could also be very durable, lasting for several years. There are many antique gold glasses from the 1800s and 1900s that still look as good today as they did when they were first made.
These glasses are often gold filled eyeglasses, as opposed to gold plate. Gold plating was a more inexpensive alternative that used as cheaper metal on the interior and then wrapped a thin foil around the outside of the eye wires and temples. After years of handling, this foil would wear away and expose the metal underneath.
Gold filled glasses were made by wrapping many sheets of gold foil over the interior wire, including extra around temples and bridges where glasses often see the most friction. These layers would last through several years of continuous use without losing their gold sheen.
Vintage gold frame glasses were usually made from 10K, 12K, or 14K gold, which in addition to the history and uniqueness of antique glasses, is part of what makes these original 1900s glasses potentially pricey depending on their condition.
While the overall design of wire rimmed glasses in the first decades of the 1900s was largely the same as existing designs of the 1890s, there were some changes in frame shapes. Previously, lenses had largely been small and oval. The small size was due to less effective lens grinding technologies and also the need for lenses to be lighter weight and worn closer to the face to avoid the glasses slipping.
By the 1900s, temple designs had become more secure and lens grinding technology had improved, so the lenses could fill a much larger portion of the eye socket area. The lens shape also had a few more geometric options. Ovals were largely out of fashion, and instead people opted for:
- Ovoid Lenses – The ovoid shape, also known as egg shaped, had a tapered bottom and wider top.
- Hexagon Lenses – The six-sided hexagon shape with sharp corners between the sides became exceedingly popular in the 1900s and lasted up until the 1920s.
- Round Circle Glasses – Although there were some circle glasses in use in the 1800s, they became far more popular at the turn of the century into the next decades.
The different lens shapes were largely an aesthetic choice and were one of the few options available at the time that people had to customize their eyewear. How quickly the more unique shapes like hexagons caught on, however, was a precursor to how fashions would embrace the growing number of options in later years.
Wire Frame Glasses from Other Metals
As an alternative to gold, several other types of wire rimmed glasses were in common use during the early 1900s. Many of these were made from steel that had first been introduced in the 1800s and other types of metal, including:
- Common Steel
- German Silver (a copper, zinc, and nickel alloy)
- Blued Steel
These materials offered similar functionality to gold in that they were easily shapeable and durable, but most were more affordable to produce and sell. Like gold wire rimmed glasses, the majority of surviving glasses made between 1900 and the 1940s are wire rimmed glasses made from these various metals and you will find many vintage examples today.
Windsor Glasses and Vintage Round Glasses
Windsor glasses were a subset of wireframe glasses from the 1900s. The name refers to a specific lens, temple, and bridge style that had first come into style in the 1880s and remained an in-demand look until the 1920s. Windsor glasses are characterized by:
- Circular lenses and rims.
- Riding bow or cable temples that curve around the ears.
- A simple saddle bridge.
A large part of these glasses’ popularity was due to how secure they were during wear. By looping temples around the ears, Windsor glasses could not easily slip off the face despite not having nose pads for additional stability. Instead, the saddle bridge provided a comfortable fit by spreading the pressure of the glasses across the entire bridge of the nose. Like other wireframe glasses, vintage Windsor glasses could be made of gold, steel, or other metals.
Antique Pince-Nez Spectacles
The pince-nez was another holdover from the 1800s. These vintage frames consisted of two lenses, occasionally with rims, held together by a bridge that acted like a spring. There were no temples to hold the pince-nez on the face. Instead, the wearer would compress the spring, place the glasses at the desired spot on the nose, and then release the spring. The two lenses would then pinch the nose, hence the name which is French for “pinch nose.”
The tension would keep the pince-nez in place so long as the wearer did not move their head too aggressively. While extremely popular in the 1890s and the beginning of the 1900s, pince-nez began falling out of style as the century wore on. They became largely associated with the upper class, particularly older generations, who were soon the predominant wearers.
A pince-nez were ideal for this group because they could only feasibly be worn in relaxed environments, such as at a party or sitting around the drawing room talking. Any environment more active than this could result in the glasses falling off the nose. This was such a common occurrence that many people used a chain, attached either to their hat pin for women or somewhere on the clothes for men, so that the pince-nez would not fall to the ground if they came off.
However, by 1900, pince-nez spectacles had developed such a reputation for falling off that they became the foundation of many jokes and satire of the time. This reputation, the improved comfort and stability of other eyeglass frames, and the ability of those frames to treat astigmatism which the pince-nez could not, led to much of the younger generation shying away from the antique pince-nez until it was completely out of style by the 1930s.
Horn Rimmed Glasses
When it came to 1900s antique eyeglasses, the other material option for frames was the horn rimmed frame. These became available around the beginning of the century and became nearly as popular as wire rimmed glasses by the 1920s.
Horn rimmed glasses were primarily vintage eyeglasses for men since most women still preferred the more subtle look of wire rim or rimless frames. Horn rimmed glasses have a thick frame surrounding the lenses entirely and the temples as well.
They almost always used skull temples that curved slightly over the ear and pressed gently against the head to hold the glasses in place. The bridge was a saddle bridge until later decades when the keyhole bridge was introduced for better fit and comfort.
The original horn rimmed frames were made from animal horn, providing color options of either black or brown. Tortoise shell was soon another possibility and vintage tortoise shell horn rimmed glasses had a brown and black mixed coloring many wearers preferred over the monotone.
Each of these original horn rimmed glasses frames had to be individually carved from either shell or horn. But by the late 1920s, there were early examples of cellulose acetate glasses available. This type of plastic, also called zyl initially, produced the same look as horn and shell, but could be made more quickly.
Horn rimmed glasses from the 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, and even 1930s are relatively rare to find as vintage frames. Both horn and tortoiseshell were relatively fragile and have not always held up against time. Early plastics were also extremely fragile and would often crack after just a few years.
Most vintage men’s horn rimmed glasses that you will find today are from the 1940s and later. This style is one that remained popular with men through all the following decades and soon became a chic look for women as well, particularly when manufacturers began using colored cellulose acetate to make more stylish eyeglass and sunglass frames near the middle of the century.
Rimless Glasses from the Early 1900s
While vintage wire rim frames were still the most popular glasses in the early 1900s, people now also had an option for rimless eyeglasses and this look quickly caught on.
Prior the rims had been necessary to connect the temples and bridge, thereby holding the entire frame together. Now manufacturers were able to connect the hardware directly to the glass lenses, creating what was sometimes called “three piece glasses” due to it containing two temples and a bridge as the only hardware.
Many people who wore glasses liked this look because it was clean, and except for the small piece of gold or silver toned hardware at the nose bridge and temples, rimless glasses are nearly invisible on the face. It is important to remember that during the first half the 1900s, glasses were still not considered attractive and were primarily a medical tool. Wearing them, especially for women, was considered a detriment to one’s looks.
Rimless glasses offered the benefit of being as inconspicuous as possible. They still had several options available, including lens shape, for which all of the contemporary shapes – ovoid, round, and hexagonal – were popular, and metal type for the temples and bridge.
Vintage rimless glasses remained very popular through the first few decades of the 1900s and have never gone out of style completely as many people still opt for rimless glasses today.
Marshwood Style and Ful-Vue Glasses
With the exception of rimless glasses, the glasses we have discussed so far were all first introduced in the 1800s. There were slight refinements in the 1900s, but the overall functionality remained largely the same.
It was not until the 1920s that there were significant innovations in the design of eyeglasses. The first was the Marshwood Style eyeglass frames. This style introduced nose pads as a means of comfort and keeping glasses in place. The original nose pads were made of mother of pearl and connected to the frames at the intersection of the bridge and the rim via small wires. They were adjustable and, for the first time, made it possible for the wearer to secure the perfect fit. Nose pads also enabled glasses to sit further away from the face without losing any stability.
The second innovation was initially called the Ful-Vue style by its manufacturer American Optical. Previous glasses designs had the temples connected to the rims at the midpoint, or halfway between the bottom and top of the frames. This was necessary to provide stability and proper placement.
The temples on Ful-Vue glasses moved upwards to connect at the top ¼ of the frames. There are several reasons for this new placement. The main one is that by 1925, when these glasses first debuted, more and more Americans were driving. Safe driving requires clear peripheral vision to see cars and other obstacles to either side. The temples on earlier glasses had blocked peripheral vision.
This new design moved the temples out of the way for unobstructed vision and customers embraced the style immediately. Other manufacturers began offering similar temple placement on their glasses, and by the 1930s, almost all wire rim and rimless glasses were made in this style.
If you are looking at a pair of vintage wire rimmed glasses, the temple placement and whether or not nosepads are present are usually two of the most helpful features in determining which era a specific pair of glasses dates from.
The P3 Eyeglass Frames of the 1930s
The 1930s heralded another innovation in eyewear. Prior to this time, the lenses on vintage spectacles were perfectly vertical, but in the early 1930s, the military developed the Pantoscopic 3 frame, which quickly became known as P3 glasses.
These glasses pushed the top of the lenses slightly forward. If you look at a pair of P3 glasses from the side, you will see that the top and the bottom of the lens are slightly offset. The small offset made it easier to correct vision problems to a more precise degree, made it easier for the wearer to switch between reading and distance, and reduced glare, the last of which was very important for military pilots.
The “3” in the name comes from the initial lens measurements. In the first pairs, the height was 3mm greater than the width. Over time, the pantoscopic tilt began to be used in all glasses, but the original name stuck.
Although the lens tilt did not cause much change in the overall look of glasses, it became the new standard in eyewear. When America entered World War II at the end of the 1930s, P3 glasses were the style issued to troops by the US military with some changes and designed to make them more durable during combat. After the war, they remained the dominant style.
Since P3 frames used the nose pads of the Marshwood Style and the temple placement of Ful-Vue glasses, much of the information about glasses and many companies that sell vintage glasses online will use these names interchangeably. Because these three innovations are some of the most important and long lasting in eyewear, the majority of antique glasses from the early 1900s that are available today will have all 3 features.
Early Cat Eye Glasses for Women
The final style of glasses we will discuss from the early 1900s is usually more associated with the 1950s. Cat eye glasses for women were an iconic look during the 50s, but they were first introduced in the 1930s and quickly became popular among women. During these early years, they were known as harlequin glasses. First designed by Altina Schisnal, who used a harlequin mask as the initial guide for shape and decoration, her idea was that women should have more fashionable options in eyewear than the simple wire rimmed, rimless, or horn rimmed glasses.
Early harlequin glasses had a rectangular lens that swept up the outer corners to create a wide point at the top. This point and the brow line could then be decorated with hand carved metal, filigree, pearls, or other ornamentation.
Harlequin glasses still generally used wire frames. Gold was popular for both frames and ornamentation, and aluminum was often used to give a silver-tone. As with horn rimmed glasses, early plastics quickly came into use for cat eye glasses to provide even more colorful and decorative looks for vintage women’s vintage eyewear.
Cat eye glasses from the 1930s and into the 1940s are relatively easy to find if you are looking for vintage vintage harlequin versus. Many of these early examples had durable metals that have lasted through the years and the style was already popular enough that thousands of designs were made.
While many people opt for the more iconic 1950s cat eye glasses, 1930s harlequin glasses are a fantastic option if you want a look that stands out even more and reflects fashion history of the early 1900s.
Sunglasses in the Early 1900s
Sunglasses existed before the 1900s and were regularly in use for medical purposes. Tinted lenses – usually in shades of amber, blue, green, or yellow – helped protect those with sensitive eyes, such as those who had undergone eye surgery or had contracted syphilis. At this time, some opticians also still held the belief that different colored lenses offered various health benefits.
This began to change in the 1920s when sunglasses started to become more of a fashion item. One of the leading reasons for this change was the movie industry. During the 1920s, movie studios in Hollywood were putting out hundreds of silent films every year, taking advantage of the nearly year round sunny weather in Los Angeles by filming outdoors.
To protect their eyes from the sun, actors and actresses began regularly wearing sunglasses and many were photographed with their vintage sunglasses on in publicity shoots. Sunglasses quickly became associated with the young and glamorous and many Americans hastened to follow the look and imitate their favorite stars.
Sunglasses also became more popular as swimming and beach going became a favorite pastime. Fashion restrictions for women were being relaxed. Early swimsuits for women, while still very covering, give women more freedom to enjoy sunny days at the beach. An entire industry built up around women’s swimming fashion, which included sunglasses to protect their eyes.
Most early sunglasses were horn rimmed or cat eye style, and cheaply made using early acetate. Very few of these original sunglasses still exist today, although they can be recreated using vintage horn rimmed or cat eye glasses and replacing the lenses with tinted lenses in the color of your choice.
Purchase Iconic 1900s Glasses at Eyeglasses Warehouse
Eyeglasses Warehouse sells all of these early 1900s styles and more. Most of the glasses in our inventory are authentic antique eyewear with a range of styles, colors, materials, and sizes for all of the different looks that were popular in the early 1900s.
We also offer reproduction retro glasses that have the same appearance as vintage horn rimmed glasses, Windsor glasses, and wire rimmed glasses. These glasses have modern materials and a modern fit.
Both vintage and retro glasses are a great option for film, television, and stage. They lend authenticity to costumes and early 1900s reenactments, and are an exciting addition to collections. For those looking for unique vintage eyewear for their daily prescription glasses, sunglasses, reading glasses, iconic glasses of the early 1900s are still attractive today.
See all of our early 1900s glasses on our website and keep our site bookmarked as we add new pairs to our inventory regularly.